Derailed: Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue

The outcome of the dialogue in Tallinn was sobering, as it is difficult to come closer on substantive issues. The question of women’s ordination is regarded as church-dividing, at least from the Orthodox angle . . .

Consequently I think we on the Lutheran side have to think about whether progress in dialogue is to be expected at all.” These sobering reflections come from Rev. Dr. Jennifer Wasmuth, a participant in the Joint Commission for theological dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Orthodox Church, following recent discussions in Estonia. The meeting, which took place May 8-13, focused on the question of women’s ordination.

These sobering reflections come from Rev. Dr. Jennifer Wasmuth, a participant in the Joint Commission for theological dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Orthodox Church, following recent discussions in Estonia. The meeting, which took place May 8-13, focused on the question of women’s ordination. If Wasmuth’s words above are anything to go by, it doesn’t sound like it was the most fruitful of discussions.

As Wasmuth explains, “The simple and crucial difference is that ordaining women is not recognized in Orthodox churches, while in most Lutheran churches it is not only recognized but already practiced.”

This is not exactly news—female ordination among churches of the Lutheran World Federation has been a perennial strain on ecumenical relations with the Orthodox (and Roman Catholics for that matter) for some time. The election of female bishops by some Lutherans has only exacerbated tensions. In 2010, for example, the election of a female bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland prompted statements of concern from the nation’s Catholic and Orthodox leaders. “As a theological decision, it is a step away from efforts toward unity,” Archbishop Leo of the Finnish Orthodox Church noted.

Ayear earlier, the election of a woman as head bishop of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) brought a quick rebuke from the Russian Orthodox Church. “We planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our dialogue with the Lutheran Church in Germany in late November or early December,” Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk noted at the time. “The 50th anniversary of the dialogue will become the end of it.” The EKD eventually canceled celebrations altogether when Metropolitan Hilarion decided not to attend.

Not long after that declaration, Metropolitan Hilarion summarized the problems at play in Orthodox-Lutheran dialogue in an interview with Der Spiegel. “Many Protestant churches have liberalized their notions of ethics, giving a theological justification to homosexuality and blessing same-sex couples,” he said. “Some refuse to consider abortion to be a sin. We do not share the understanding of the Church and church order, especially as the Protestants, unlike the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, ordain women.”

Likewise, a 2011 Inter-Orthodox evaluation of dialogue between the Orthodox and the LWF on the global level noted similar issues straining relations. “The ordination of women on all levels of clerical orders,” it wrote, “is a clear deviation from Christian practice,” as is “the emergence of a new moral-code concerning human sexuality and especially homosexual relations.” “In the eyes of most Orthodox,” the report continued, “these new ecclesiological and controversial anthropological innovations in the Lutheran world constitute radical challenges and serious obstacles to the Orthodox-Lutheran theological dialogue and to its original aim, namely, the promotion of mutual ecclesial rapprochement and, eventually, of Church unity.” While the report recognized much good had come from discussion with the LWF, it nevertheless concluded that issues like women’s ordination and innovative teachings on human sexuality “call into question the value of much that we have achieved in our dialogue.” “Lutherans should understand,” the report continues, “that these issues are major difficulties in our dialogue and may jeopardize its continuation and success.”

In other words, the major roadblocks to progress in Lutheran-Orthodox discussions are actually the hallmarks of liberal Protestantism—hallmarks of the theological direction that many churches of the Lutheran World Federation have taken. They are also, unsurprisingly, the same problems which have been frustrating Lutheran–Roman Catholic dialogue—something I’ve written about before. But as I wrote in that earlier post, it’s important to note that liberal Lutheranism isn’t the only game in town: There also exist confessional Lutheran churches like those of the International Lutheran Council (ILC)—churches which remain faithful to the Church’s historic teaching on the subjects of sexuality and female ordination. Consequently, just as Roman Catholics and ILC Lutherans have begun looking to each other for closer relations, it may well be that in the future Orthodox Christians find closer agreement with confessional Lutherans than with the LWF.

*Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets@captainthin. The header image comes from a 1574 translation of the Augsburg Confession into Greek, which was sent to Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople. This was the first (albeit short-lived) Orthodox-Lutheran dialogue. In Greek, the title reads: “A Confession of the Orthodox Faith.” *

10 / July / 2014

Highlighting is mine

Many of us have been trying to convince our good friend and fellow poster Evangelcatholic of this very problem. This is not a cultural issue, or a historical one. It is an issue of what is taught in scripture and the historic Church, both east and west.
The synods of the LWF, by continuing down this road of female ordination, are not only compromising the northern European lines of apostolic succession shared between Lutherans and Anglicans, but also driving a new and unnecessary wedge of division between Lutherans and Catholic, and Lutherans and Orthodox. :shrug:


This strikes me as a near repeat of the efforts of Philipp Melanchthon and a few others to form an alliance (or communion) with the Orthodox in the 16th century. The Orthodox decided, some 400+ years ago, that a Church can neither abandon the Apostolic Tradition, nor the seven Sacraments. The bottom line, as I see it, is that the reformers thought the Orthodox to be essentially too Catholic, while the Orthodox thought that the reformers had discarded too much of the faith. The 20th century move toward female ordination only widens the gap.

From a protestant source:

The problem, more and more, is that the LWF is becoming less and less orthodox Lutheran, which leaves Catholic and Orthodox dialogue teams to deal with a moving target, one that is further and further away.
Until recently, there had been remarkable progress in Orthodox - Lutheran dialogue in the last 20 - 30 years.

On the issues of female ordination, morals, same gender marriage, etc., ILC Lutheran synods are essentially step with Rome and the East.


Jon…what is the difference between the LWF and ILC and LCMS?

In matter of size, which is begger (in terms of members or synods/parishes)?

Lutheran alphabet soup.
Lutheran polity is a mixed bag,because it has always been consider adiaphoron. So, in Europe there are national churches, as well as smaller synods. When Lutherans came to America, they tended to set up church governance around the ethnic/national groups of immigrants, hence different synods.
In the United State now, following some merging as Lutherans became affected by the melting pot, there are three larger institutional bodies - the ELCA, LCMS, and the WELS. Of these, the ELCA is the largest, with the LCMS second. There are also smaller synods, as some newer groupings as a result of the ELCA’s recent shift in gender policies,
Internationally, there is the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which is a federation of synods and national churches. It is, by far the larger, and also the more liberal. The ELCA is a member of the LWF.
The ILC is the International Lutheran Council, which is an association of confessional Lutheran synods and bodies. The LCMS is a member of it.


Thanks, Jon.

Just your thoughts, as a Lutheran, do you believe JP II has spoken authoritatively on the subject of women priests? And you accept what he stated?

I think he reiterated what has always been held by the Church Catholic. What he said can be defended from both scripture and Sacred Tradition in both the east and west, including (in the west) Lutheran orthodoxy. So in that sense, yes, it was authoritative.


It seems folks will have to choose, and have been forced to choose now for the past 100yrs. Are they going to be fence-sitters or join the liberal Lutheran-Anglican-Methodist-Presbyterian theological communities, or the Traditional Catholic-Orthodox theological communities. The differences are becoming more solid, and it is difficult to sustain a position of Traditional but outside any but our own relatively tiny communion.

I wouldn’t disagree. Ultimately, it may come down to those two choices.

Same question I posted to Jon, PerC…and any Lutheran/Anglican who wants to chime in (just interested in your view)

[SIGN]Just your thoughts, as a Lutheran, do you believe JP II has spoken authoritatively on the subject of women priests? And you accept what he stated?[/SIGN]

That is a good sign.

His reasoning is 100% accurate as to why women cannot be ordained.

I have read several threads here about orthodox Lutheran talks about unification. I had heard about orthodox Catholic talks but that Lutheran and orthodox are speaking is wonderful but it has caught me off guard.

Those who are orthodox and Lutheran. Do you see in the next 20 years a unification between Catholicism and orthodoxy or Lutheran with orthodoxy first?

Neither. Individuals will make the determination to either remain Lutheran or join the Catholic or Orthodox communions. The Synods will remain where they are.

Neither. I don’t see corporate reunion happening between us traditional, liturgical churches unless Christianity worldwide becomes so heavily persecuted that there’s no choice but to cling to each other. Desperation always brings ingenuity, and that could open doors for some creative solutions to current barriers. Fun to muse on it, in some strange and dark way. We’d be a significantly smaller flock, but exponentially better-catechized.

400 years ago the issues were very different. We took issue with many of the same thesis that the Catholic Church did. Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, priesthood of all believers, (interestingly Lutherans have moved on all three of the issues listed above). I think it is a shame that Patriarch Jeremiah didn’t try to engage the Lutherans, but he did have quite a bit of other things on his plate, and he may not have seen much point owing to the contentiousness of the era (if Lutherans reject something Catholics do that we also do so violently, what are the chances they’ll listen to us?)

The rejection of the Apostolic Tradition, five of the seven Sacraments, portions of scripture (as inspired) and an authoritative Church is not something that can ever be compromised. As a realist, I believe that it is time for the descendants of the reformation to re-think those portions of the faith that were jettisoned in 16th century Germany.

I never suggested compromise. I agree.

I can’t help but wonder though if certain of their early excesses might have been lessened if they had seen their disagreements weren’t just limited to the Roman Church.

Sorry for the unintended implication that you did! If one is to remain Christian (as it has been understood since 33AD) there is no room for compromise.

Philipp Melanchthon and his fellows certainly found out. I doubt that is how they accepted it, though. After 6 years and 400 pages of dialog, the Orthodox rightly rejected the “reform.”

The excesses and abuses of Rome were rightly objected to. Those who suffered perhaps the most were the ones who fought internally for reform. The reformers’ rejection of the Tradition of the Apostles and the seven Sacraments was a sad over-reaction, I think. If that same over-reaction is pondered and considered today, and one is willing to approach Christianity from a Sacramental and Apostolic Catholic/Orthodox view, true progress can be made.

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